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Indy makes a welcome return in the last crusade

by Glen Baity

My inner child is happier than he’s ever been. Transformers are back in style (even if the movie sucked), there’s a new GI Joe movie on the way.

And this past weekend, Indiana Jones came back.

Less a character than a cultural force, Indy has starred in three movies you’ve probably seen every second of, even if you never set out to watch them. The rolling boulder. The snake pit. The beating heart getting ripped out of that dude’s chest. Each frame an enduring cultural touchstone, brought to you by Steven Spielberg.

But underneath it all, the Indy movies have always been pure, pulpy fun, globe-trotting adventures centered around an egghead with a bullwhip who risks his life so some artifact can be catalogued and stuck on a museum shelf. What’s not to like?

Of course, there’s a whole generation of high school graduates who weren’t even alive the last time Harrison Ford donned his iconic fedora in 1989’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Is the ass-kickingest archaeologist in academia still relevant?

Oh, who cares? He’s still cool, and that’s the important thing. At 65, Ford looks happier than ever to be chasing after some mythical whatsis in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. It’s 1957, and Dr. Jones is out of retirement, being stalked by Communists and men in black overcoats alike. He heads to Peru on a quest to find the object that drove his colleague, Professor Oxley (John Hurt) out of his mind: the Crystal Skull, an ancient mind-control device also lusted after by Russian psychic warfare expert Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett).

But enough exposition. If you’re holding on to your eight dollars, what you really want to know is whether Crystal Skull measures up.

Well, if the Star Wars prequels taught us nothing else, they proved that nostalgia is a testy barometer. If you grew up on Indiana Jones, this one might seem a poor addition to a trilogy that was already rounded out perfectly almost 20 years ago. This incarnation is slicker; the plot, hatched by a well-past-his-prime George Lucas, is kind of a mess (also, the title was clearly dreamed up by the same guy who thought Attack of the Clones had a nice ring to it); and overall, it doesn’t add very much to the franchise.

I think it’s a mistake, however, to ascribe any great meaning to a film that aspires to be nothing more than another popcorn masterpiece. Really, if there is a series of films more dedicated to its audience’s unqualified enjoyment, I’m unaware of it. Nowhere is that more evident than in Crystal Skull, which works overtime for the viewer’s pleasure: the explosions are big, the stunts are bigger, the jokes are corny and the ride is fast. It doesn’t always know how to give the audience what it wants, but so what? At its heart, it’s an Indiana Jones flick through and through.

Still, the flaws do warrant a discussion. For one: Action has always been the series’ calling card, and Crystal Skull arguably relies too much on new-fangled technology to do what good set design and cinematography did better in the past. What’s here is pretty good, but the film is best when it lands on the plausible side of the fantastic. The car chases are a blast, and so are the fist fights; conversely, when the characters plunge over a Niagra-sized waterfall and suffer nary a scratch, it might take you out of the moment a bit. There’s a fine line between “awesome” and “over the top,” and Crystal Skull spends equal time on both sides.

This isn’t exactly the Indy you remember, the one who last rode into theaters four years before Jurassic Park. Sure, Crystal Skull isn’t drenched in CGI by Phantom Menace standards, but there’s a lot more digital enhancement here than you’re used to seeing. The film has a glossy Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow look that doesn’t fit in with its grubbier predecessors. I can’t say I’m pleased with that, but honestly, I was expecting so much worse from a modern Spielberg/Lucas collaboration.

The two leave it to the stars to give the film a human quality, and they mostly don’t disappoint. Ford is rakish and charming as ever, and Karen Allen, stepping back into the role of Marion after 27 years, does a fine job as his comic foil and greatest love interest. A waxy-looking Shia LaBeouf joins the cast as Indy’s grease-monkey sidekick, a motorcycle-driving mama’s boy with too much attitude to be any fun.

But on the whole, it’s a pretty good time at the movies. I’ll leave it to fans to decide where Crystal Skull ranks with the rest of the series, but it will probably take a little age and a few more viewings to place it in context. My gut reaction: I like it more than Temple of Doom, less than Raiders and Last Crusade. But for my money, even a kind of sub-par Indiana Jones is a welcome companion on any Memorial Day weekend.

To comment on this article, send your e-mail to glen.baity@gmail.com.

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